In what has become the benchmark for effective branded live streaming, Buzzfeed streamed two of their employees strapping rubber bands around a watermelon waiting for it to explode, in full coveralls and goggles. The stunt was only expected to last around 10 minutes but, 45 minutes later, there they were with the whole office gathered round waiting for the moment. By this time, too, engagement online had swollen and the internet was in a frenzy over one of the year’s strangest events.
The project, as grandiose a term as that may seem for it, racked up 800,000 concurrent viewers at its peak, and has close to 11 million views in total. The exercise was so successful that a Buzzfeed Vine of the explosive moment has over two million loops. It’s the kind of indirect marketing that other brands will wish they’d had the idea for, though of course Buzzfeed’s already significant popularity helped it get off the ground.
But, as brands look to live streaming as an opportunity for development, it will be in stunts and obscurities that most find success - few consumers willingly tune in to an advert. Some are using the medium to stream to give an insight into exclusive events, while others are using it to launch products, but publicity stunts will be all the more enticing for brands now that the limit on those able to engage live has effectively been removed.
According to eMarketer, the US digital video advertising spend was up 46% last year, to $7.7 billion, with the projected total for 2018 at an eye-watering $13.4 billion - live streaming is set to take off with it. Of the social media giants, Twitter was first on board, acquiring Periscope in 2015 and allowing brands to advertise their streams in promoted tweets.
Facebook has jumped on the trend in a big way this year, though. Having launched Facebook Live to the general public - other than just celebrities - at the end of January, Facebook then changed its algorithm in March so that live streaming was favored. If one of your friends is streaming live content on Facebook, your news feed will make sure you’re aware of it. Unlike the plethora of live streaming startups, the Californian giant has the user base to bring live streaming into the mainstream, and marketers will be paying attention given that already 30% of daily media time is spent on user-generated content. Facebook is also allowing live streams to be filmed on drones and high-definition cameras, so the possibilities are numerous.
Live streaming is taking off in China, too. Originally, the country was playing catch up, looking to emulate the likes of Periscope and the largely similar Meerkat. After months of snowballing, though, the medium has swept the country. Strict content rules make live streaming difficult, and the companies doing so have already been accused of facilitating pornography - in many ways unavoidable given the inherent difficulty in policing live streaming. Even so, Apple’s Chinese app store has seen streaming service Ingkee hit the number one spot multiple times this year, with nearly 50 million downloads to date. Similarly Douyu - a game-streaming service turned mobile and lifestyle content streamer - say they have over 120 million active monthly users, and has Tencent Holdings and Sequoia Capital China among its investors.
So both the US and China are set to see an explosion in live streamed content, but for all the opportunities live streaming affords brands, unedited and spontaneous content can be difficult to get right. The wider drive for ‘authenticity’ in advertising will have brands scrambling to put together a live stunt, but live is by its very nature, risky, particularly with the internet poised to hijack a less than polished campaign. According to the Financial Times, the focus of a make-up tutorial by Benefit Cosmetics was inadvertently a wonky picture frame in the background, with viewers commenting incessantly until it was corrected - it’s the obscurity of the criticism that makes live streaming a daunting prospect.
Successful or otherwise, live streaming is on its way up. The vested interest from the behemoths of Facebook and Twitter to push live content to their users will see it become commonplace quickly, and brands should be ready to exploit the ostensible spontaneity that can be so engaging. Whether live streaming has the capacity to oust TV remains to be seen. What is apparent is that live streaming is not to remain confined to the fringes - it’s going mainstream and brands should follow.